New York

Michael David

Knoedler & Company

Michael David’s most recent abstract encaustic paintings are eloquently deceptive: What looks at first like wispy atmosphere—elusive surges of color against an amorphous ground—is on closer inspection revealed to be a tactile, heavily built-up surface. For over twenty years, David has been working in this encaustic technique, which involves combining dry pigments with melted wax and damar varnish, and he takes the process quite seriously: Pump (all works 1999) uses some sixty pounds of molten cadmium-red wax—a magma the artist pours on the canvas in a gesture evoking Jackson Pollock’s process. But where the traces of Pollock’s pourings are eminently visible, those of David’s performance are private—gone underground, as it were, because the paint has been compacted and smoothed over. This creates a sense of pent-up pressure in the work, as if, under the crust of beautiful color, the paintings might boil over at any moment.

What makes David’s canvases seductive is their latent (rather than blatant) emotivity. The marvelous Self-Portrait is a case in point: An erotic current of red, with a kind of linear spine, rises out of nowhere, holding its own against the luminous emptiness. This apparition becomes an existential presence, only to fall back again into meaningless materiality. Because David allows no resolution to what promises to be a figurative element (recalling one of Clyfford Still’s pushed-to-the-edge “figures”), he creates an effect of dissolution. Bearing vestiges of the human body, this hauntingly indefinite form can be read as a kind of enigmatic memento mori; David seems to be exploring the depressive aspects of process painting, along with its aggressive tendencies.

With his swirls of color standing in for the human figure, David presents the body’s dissolution in a “gesture” of transcendence. Leap Into the Void (for Klein) is an homage to the photographs documenting Yves Klein’s staged flying leap, which articulated the irony of attempting transcendence in modern dress. David, however, gives greater prominence to the void than to the figure in blue (Klein’s signature color) who seems to be on the verge of disappearing into it. And in paintings like Le Violon d’Ingres (for Man Ray) and Amaryllis (for Georgia O’Keeffe), David seems to bring this quest for the sublime into the realm of erotic desire. By engaging photography and figuration in these works, he suggests that abstract painting can deliver on something that those media can only propose: the sense of transcendence attainable in the erotic context. Keeping faith with abstract painting, David keeps alive the idea of transcendence, and with it the sacredness of eros.

Donald Kuspit